Ryan Donovan, Director, Southborough Library
Ryan Donovan, Director, Southborough Library

Looking for creative ideas to expand library programs and services outdoors? In this interview, Ryan Donovan, Director of the Southborough Library, tells us about the many ways the library successfully moved programs and services outdoors during the pandemic, as well as, the library’s plans for future use of the outdoors. This is the second in a series of four interviews featuring how public libraries evolved during the pandemic by moving services and programs outdoors.


Tell us about how the Southborough Library expanded services and programs to the outdoors.

Southborough Library garden beds
Southborough Library garden beds

Ryan Donovan: In April 2020, the Southborough Library applied for the inaugural edition of the MBLC LSTA Dig In!: Growing Libraries with Gardens and nature-based Learning Spaces grant round. This distribution of funds from the Library Science & Technology Act focused on establishing outdoor garden spaces at the library. Working with community partners, we created two distinct new garden spaces at the library. An Eagle Scout created wooden garden beds which were placed adjacent to the parking lot. These became an inaugural vegetable and herb garden which sourced material from the new Southborough Library Seed Exchange. It created a small garden space where members of the public could grow their own food. The hope is to provide fresh herbs and produce for the Southborough Food Pantry annually. The Southborough Library Board of Trustees and Library Director also worked with the Southborough Open Space Preservation Commission on the establishment of a Native Plant Garden. This garden focuses on native pollinators and a small area with native grass, with a slant for educating our local community as to the importance of maintaining local agriculture. The work to create and maintain the new Native Plant Garden at the library as a community resource is ongoing.

Soofa Bench
Soofa bench at the Southborough Library

The library applied for a grant to the Southborough Community Fund in order to establish a new library Story Walk on the grounds. Starting on the Main Street side of the library’s property, this new Story Walk features a new juvenile picture book title every 3-4 months and leads directly into the library’s new adjacent garden spaces previously mentioned. The library also applied to the local Choate Recreational Fund in Southborough for a Soofa bench with a solar panel. This device uses solar energy to charge USB devices outside. The bench was added to an existing seating area at the intersection of Route 85 and Route 30 on the library’s front lawn. Finally, the Chair of the Southborough Library Board of Trustees Marguerite Landry donated a statue of a frog reading on its belly in memory of her late brother. This statue, placed strategically outside the library’s high traffic Children’s Room, is a companion piece to another frog statue which is located near the start of the library’s new Story Walk.

All this is in addition to the work of the Southborough Gardens in maintaining a dedicated garden space to the left of the library’s historic front entrance, nicknamed “The Circle Garden” for its circular shape. They also maintain fabulous planters positioned directly outside the library’s main entrance that have been modified and updated seasonally by volunteers.

How did your community respond to outdoor library services and programs?

Ryan Donovan: The response to all of the library’s initiatives have been overwhelming. The library’s outdoor space was made more dynamic and now has a little something for everyone, children and adults alike. The Native Plant Garden has only been made possible by volunteers who have worked under the OSPC. This effort has included Charter School students from Marlborough, in addition to local residents with a passion for working outdoors. Patrons have also responded very positively to the herb and vegetable garden initiative and have helped to water the plants, which is necessary in particular on Sundays when the library is closed.

Frog Sculpture
Frog Sculpture at the Southborough Library

The intersection seating area has become a popular area for parents to stop and chat while walking with their children or dogs on Main Street. It has also become the de facto site for a local Town employee book group that meets monthly. Each time the title in the Story Walk has been changed it has become an event where families come to read the story start-to-finish. Every child who notices the new frog statue stops by to say hello to their new friend.

What are your library’s plans for future use of the outdoors?

Ryan: The library plans to continue working with our community partners on the outdoor garden spaces. We will have to close these spaces for the winter soon, then re-advertise in the Spring to solicit OSPC volunteer help. The Southborough Gardeners will continue their town beautification efforts, including The Circle Garden and the library’s fantastic front door planters. Honestly, we have spent the last year completely filling up our grounds with all of our new features and outdoor project. I’m not sure we have any space left for anything new.

Pollinator Preservation Garden at the Southborough Library
Pollinator Preservation Garden at the Southborough Library

What lessons did you learn that may be helpful for other libraries?

Maximize relationships with community partners. Seek out local grant entities to support any grounds initiatives. The garden spaces, Story Walk, and Soofa bench were all funded by different grant entities at different times throughout the last year. These groups have also helped to fund past initiatives for the Southborough Library, including a giant outdoor chess set several years ago. Working with these groups over the years was very helpful when the library first faced the pandemic, as these entities had resources to help fund new grounds initiatives for the library.

Any final thoughts?

In addition to the expanded programs and services, the Southborough Library also completed a Library Façade Restoration Project last year that used Community Preservation Act funds authorized by the Southborough Community Preservation Committee. These funds allowed the library to complete a much-needed construction project for a new roof and the historic restoration and repointing of the library’s granite front stairs. The fact that the exterior of the building was restored and enhanced helped attract residents and new users to the library. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the library was closed, but new library users suddenly had a lot of additional features on the library grounds that they could experience and enjoy. Using CPA funds to enhance a historic structure or building for the library, or possibly even a grounds initiative, is an additional option I would encourage libraries in Massachusetts to explore.

Interview with Ryan Donovan, Director, Southborough Library

Interviewed by Michelle Eberle, Consultant, Massachusetts Library System